Balanced nutrient inputs are essential for optimal plant growth and yields. Depending on the soil, crop, and environmental conditions, certain nutritional supplements further enhance crop performance. While macro- and micro-nutrients are necessary for plant growth and optimal yields, biostimulants play multiple roles by increasing the bioavailability of nutrients, improving nutrient and water absorption, protecting plants from pestiferous organisms either through direct antagonism or by triggering plants defense mechanisms (Berg, 2009; Dara, 2019a). In addition to improving health and yields, biostimulants are also known to increase nutritional quality (Paradikovic et al., 2011; Fierentino et al., 2018). Multiple field studies in California demonstrated the potential of biostimulants and soil amendments in improving yields in tomato (Dara, 2019b; Dara and Lewis, 2019) and strawberry (Dara and Peck, 2018; Dara, 2019a). As the knowledge of biostimulants and their potential for sustainable agriculture is expanding, there has been a steady introduction of biostimulant products in the market warranting additional studies. A study was conducted to evaluate the potential of different biostimulant materials on strawberry growth, health, and fruit yields.
This study was conducted in an experimental strawberry field at the Shafter Research Station during 2019-2020. Cultivar San Andreas was planted on 29 October 2019. No pre-plant fertilizer application was made in this non-fumigated field which had both Fusarium oxysporum and Macrophomina phaseolina infections in previous year's strawberry planting. Each treatment was applied to a 300' long bed with single drip tape in the center and two rows of strawberry plants. Sprinkler irrigation was provided immediately after planting along with drip irrigation, which was provided one or more times weekly as needed for the rest of the experimental period. Each bed was divided into six 30' long plots, representing replications, with an 18' buffer in between. This study included both biostimulant and nutrient supplements, but this article presents data from the biostimulant treatments only. Treatments were applied either as fertigation through the drip system using a Dosatron or sprayed over the plants with a handheld garden sprayer. The following treatments were evaluated in this study:
i) Grower Standard (GS): Between 6 November 2019 and 9 May 2020, 1.88 qt of 20-10-0 (a combination of 32-0-0 urea ammonium nitrate and 10-34-0 ammonium phosphate) and 1.32 qt of potassium thiosulfate was applied 20 times at weekly intervals through fertigation. This fertilizer program was used as the standard for all treatments except for the addition of biostimulant materials.
ii) GS + Abound: Transplants were dipped in 7 fl oz of Abound (azoxystrobin) fungicide in 100 gal of water for 4 min immediately prior to planting. Transplant dip in a fungicide is practiced by several growers to protect from fungal diseases and is considered as another standard in this study.
iii) GS + Locus program: Applied Str10 (Wickerhamomyces sp.) at 5 fl oz/ac with molasses at 10 fl oz/ac immediately after planting and Rhizolizer (Trichoderma harzianum and Bacillus amyloliquefaciens) at 3 fl oz with a food source blend at 10 fl oz 2 weeks after Str10 application through the drip system. Repeated the same pattern starting from mid-February 2020. From February to May, applied 6 fl oz/ac of Rhizolizer with 20 fl oz/ac of food source once a month. Str10 is an unregistered product with yeast that is expected to help with nutrient uptake and phosphorous mobilization for improved plant vigor and yield. Rhizolizer is expected to solubilize soil nutrients and improve crop growth and yield.
iv) GS + Redox program: Starting from about one month after planting, diKaP (0-31-50 NPK) was applied as a foliar spray at 2 lb in 50 gpa every two weeks. In addition to potassium and phosphorus, diKaP also contains proprietary soluable carbon compounds that improve antioxidant production leading to increased plant respiration and tolerance to abiotic stress.
v) Bio Huma Netics (BHN) program: Transplants were dipped in 10 gal of water with 6.4 fl oz of BreakOut (4-14-2 NPK), 1.28 fl oz of Promax (thyme oil), 1.28 fl oz of Vitol (8-16-4 NPK with iron, manganese, sulfur, and zinc), and 1.28 fl oz of Zap (8-0-0 N with iron, manganese, sulfur and zinc) for 4 min immediately prior to planting. Custom blends of macro- and micro-nutrients (Ultra Precision A and B) were prepared based on soil (pre-planting) and plant tissue analyses and applied as a substitute to the grower standard fertility program. Ultra Precision A during the first 30 days after planting and Ultra Precision B for the rest of the study period were applied at weekly intervals at 1.6 gal/bed for a total of 12 times (compared to 20 fertigation events for the grower standard program). Ultra Precision blends were made with Super Phos/Phos-Max, Super Potassium, X-Tend, Nitric acid, Calcium, 44 Mag, BreakOut, Vitol, Max Pak, Iro-Max, Activol, Comol, and Surf-Max that provided N, P, and K along with boron, calcium, cobalt, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, and sulfur.
vi) GS + BioWorks program 1: Applied 32 fl oz of ON-Gard (based on soy protein hydrolysate) every two weeks through the drip system from planting until canopy develops and then applied as a foliar spray in 50 gpa. ON-Gard is expected to increase the nutrient use efficiency and decrease abiotic stress to the plants.
vii) GS + BioWorks program 2: Applied 32 fl oz of ON-Gard (soy protein-based) every two weeks through the drip system from planting until canopy develops and then sprayed in 50 gpa. Also applied RootShield Plus WP (T. harzianum and T. virens) at 2 lb/ac through drip immediately after planting and 1 lb/ac at the end of November and again at the end of December 2019. RootShield is a biofungicide expected to protect strawberry from phytopathogens and improve water and nutrient uptake.
viii) GS + Fauna Soil Production (FSP) program: Applied CropSignal at 10 gpa six days prior to planting and at 5 gpa 30 after transplanting through the drip system. CropSignal is a carbon-based nutrient formula containing botanical extracts and along with cobalt, copper, manganese, and zinc and is expected to support the growth and diversity of beneficial aerobic soil microbes for improved soil structure, water retention, nutrient cycling, and plant protection.
ix) GS + Stoller program 1: Applied Stoller Root Feed Dry (9-0-5 NPK with boron, calcium, magnesium, and molybdenum) at 10 lb/ac every 10 days starting from 19 February 2020 and Stoller Grow (4-0-3 NPK with copper, magnesium, manganese, and zinc) at 8 fl oz/ac once on 27 February 2020 through the drip system. Stoller Root Feed Dry is expected to promote continuous root growth by maintaining nutritional balance while Stoller Grow is expected to increase growth efficiency and abiotic stress tolerance.
x) GS + Stoller program 2: Applied Harvest More Urea Mate (5-10-27 NPK with boron, calcium, cobalt, copper, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc) at 10 lb/ac along with Stoller Crop Mix (algal extract with boron and calcium) at 8 fl oz/ac every 10 days starting from 19 February 2020 and Stoller Grow at 8 fl oz/ac once on 27 February 2020 through the drip system. Harvest More Urea Mate is expected to provide optimal plant growth while Stoller Crop Mix is expected to maintain the nutritional balance and improve crop vigor and yields.
Parameters observed during the study included canopy growth (area of the canopy) in January, February, and March; first flower and fruit count in January; leaf chlorophyll and leaf nitrogen (with chlorophyll meter) in January, February, and May; fruit sugar (with refractometer) in March and May; fruit firmness (with penetrometer) in March, April, and May; severity of gray mold (caused by Botrytis cinereae) and other fruit diseases (mucor fruit rot caused by Mucor spp. and Rhizopus fruit rot caused by Rhizopus spp.) 3 and 5 days after harvest (on a scale of 0 to 4 where 0=no infection; 1=1-25%, 2=26-50%, 3=51-75% and 4=76-100% fungal growth) in March and May; sensitivity to heat stress (expressed as the number of dead and dying plants) in May; and fruit yield per plant from 11 weekly harvests between 11 March and 14 May 2020. Data were analyzed using analysis of variance in Statistix software and significant means were separated using the Least Significant Difference test.
Results and Discussion
The impact of treatments varied on various measured parameters. The interactions among plants, available nutrients, beneficial and pathogenic microorganisms in the crop environment, the influence of environmental factors, and how all these biotic and abiotic factors ultimately impact the crop health and yields are very complex. The scope of this study was only to measure the impact of biostimulants and nutrient supplements on growth, health, and yield parameters and not to investigate those complex interactions.
The canopy size does not always correspond with yields but could be indicative of stresses and how the plant is responding to them in the presence of treatment materials. Plants in some treatments had significantly larger canopy size in January and February, but plants in the grower standard and both Stoller programs were significantly larger than the rest by March. Leaf chlorophyll and nitrogen contents were significantly different among treatments only in January where the grower standard plants had the lowest and the plants that received CropSignal had the highest. When the counts of the first onset of flowers and developing fruits were taken in January, plants that received the BioWorks program that only received ON-Gard had the highest number followed by the CropSignal and Abound treatments. Stoller treatments were not included in the study at this time, so data for leaf chlorophyll, nitrogen, and first flower and fruit counts were not available in January. Average fruit sugar was the highest in BioWorks program with ON-Gard alone followed by FSP's Crop Signal, both Stoller programs, and the Abound treatments. There was no statistically significant difference in the average fruit firmness among the treatments. Severity of the gray mold, which occurred at low levels during the observation period, also did not statistically differ among the treatments. However, the severity of other diseases was significantly different among various treatments with the highest level in fruits from the grower standard. Temperatures were unusually high during the last week of May and several plants exhibited heat stress and started to die. The number of dead or dying plants on 28 May was the lowest in Locus and Abound treatments.
There were significant differences in marketable and unmarketable fruit yields among treatments. Highest marketable yields were seen in both Stoller treatments followed by BioWorks program with ON-Gard alone, BHN, and other treatments. Transplant dip in a fungicide seems to have a negative impact on fruit yields as observed in the current study or earlier studies (Dara and Peck, 2017 and 2018; Peck unpublished data). While the grower standard had the highest amount of unmarketable fruits, the Locus treatment had the lowest in this study. Fruit yield and some of the observed parameters appeared to be better in the grower standard compared to some treatments, which has also been seen in some earlier strawberry studies. While biostimulants can help plants under some stresses, providing sufficient macro- and micro-nutrients seems to be critical for higher fruit yields as seen with Stoller and BHN treatments. It is important to note that BHN materials were applied only 12 times compared to 20 applications of the grower standard treatment or other treatments that were applied on top of the grower standard treatment. It is also important to note that when ON-Gard was used alone, it also improved the marketable fruit yields by nearly 12% compared to the grower standard. When marketable fruit yield in the Abound treatment was considered, all treatments performed better 7-50% higher yields. Sometimes natural balance of the nutrients, organic matter, and microbial community in the soil might result in optimal yields in the absence of pathogens or other stressors. However, it is very common to use fungicidal treatments or add biological or supplemental nutrition to protect from potential threats and improving yields. These results help understand the impact of various biostimulants and supplements and warrant the need to continue such studies under various environmental, crop, and soil conditions.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Bio Huma Netics, BioWorks, Inc., Fauna Soil Production, Locus Agricultural Solutions, Redox Ag, and Stoller for the financial support of the study and Marjan Heidarian Dehkordi and Tamas Zold for their technical assistance.
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